A special exhibition of Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist best known for his multimedia explorations of the legacy of colonialism, opened at the Yale Center for British Art this past Thursday.
Sculpture, film, photography and installation works — which include Shonibare’s characteristic colorful, wax-printed cottons — consider Britain’s imperial history, focusing on the artist’s interest in Admiral Lord Nelson, an iconic British naval figure who served at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The show features the original scale model of “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” — a public commission installed in Trafalgar Square in 2010 as Shonibare’s contribution to the “Fourth Plinth” series, a prestigious contemporary-arts initiative that invites artists to create pieces for the central London square — alongside related pieces from Shonibare’s œuvre.
“Shonibare’s mixed media approach … is truly fascinating and aesthetically conveys his historically heavy message,” said Cati Vlad ’19, who visited the display. “I greatly enjoyed the exhibition and would definitely recommend it to the Yale community.”
Ghislin Nezerwa ’18, another student who attended the exhibition, praised the show’s “tactile perspective,” as well as its incorporation of works that supplement viewers’ understanding of the model of Nelson’s ship.
Such pieces include “Addio del Passato” (2011) — a work of video art recasting the final aria of Verdi’s “La Traviata” as a performance by Nelson’s estranged wife, Fanny — as well as costumes worn by the film’s protagonists. A trio of digital chromogenic prints from Shonibare’s series “Fake Death Pictures” (2011) explore ideas about “imperial heroism” through the figure of Nelson, reimagining famous works from the history of art, such as Édouard Manet’s “The Suicide” (1877-1881) and Henry Wallis’ “The Death of Chatterton” (1856), as different death scenarios for the British admiral.
To further complement the Shonibare display, Gillian Forrester, the YCBA’s senior curator of prints and drawings, selected a group of works made by Black British and African-American contemporary artists, such as Sonia Boyce, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, Hew Locke, Chris Ofili and Carrie Mae Weems.
Students expressed interest in the show’s explorations of the cultural interactions that have shaped Shonibare’s work.
Nezerwa said he was intrigued by the wax-printed cottons Shonibare often employs in his sculptures, while Anshu Chen ’18 noted his fascination with the questions he thinks the artist’s work raises about contemporary British nationalism.
“British culture venerates certain historical figures as mythical heroes — similar to the way many Americans view Lincoln or Washington,” Chen explained. “Nelson represents nationalistic victory over Napoleon, and it’s fascinating to see this historical veneration performed by a new generation of artists. Does British nationalism look the same as it did in Nelson’s time? Should it?”